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‘Soldier Search Mission’ successful in locating 43 World War I graves

Tuesday 2 May 2023 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in National, Outer Islands

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‘Soldier Search Mission’ successful in locating 43 World War I graves
Mangaia’s ‘A Team’ members Tama Koroa (left) and George Marurai assist the Soldiers Research Team in locating WWI soldiers’ burial sites. CATE WALKER/23050102

One hundred and eleven (111) Mangaia-born soldiers were enlisted in the First World War (WWI), according to the Cook Islands WWI New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) ANZAC Soldiers Research Project. The Soldiers Research Project team have now located and documented 43 of the 45 Cook Islands WWI soldiers’ graves and headstones on the island of Mangaia.

Last week members of the team Cate Walker, Paul Morrisey, Paula Paniani and Julie Taripo visited Mangaia for five days. Their last visit to the island was in October 2018 when they located 38 WWI soldiers’ graves and headstones.

“Since our visit in 2018 and sending our soldier location information back to the Mangaia Island Administration, it was very apparent that a lot of work has gone into cleaning their burial grounds and re-lettering the soldiers’ granite headstones,” said Walker.

“It was an amazing transformation. I take my hat off to them.

“Our research indicates that 45 are buried in Mangaia, and many are buried in Rarotonga. This is not to say that they all enlisted in Mangaia as many were working in Rarotonga on enlistment.”

The Mangaia Island Administration had allocated several employees to assist them during their visit.

“With the help of these employees and talking to the local community, we have now located the burial sites of 43 soldiers we were searching for,” said Walker.

“Without the helpful community and support of Anthony Whyte and Taoi Nooroa from the Mangaia Island Administration, we would not have achieved this fantastic result.”


The Cook Islands WW1 NZEF ANZAC Soldiers Research Project team to Mangaia 2023. From Left: Julie Taripo, Paul Morrissey, Cate Walker and Paula Paniani. SUPPLIED/23050101

The team also attended the Mangaia ANZAC Service where Paniani addressed the community about the project.

Members of the community were also shown how to re-letter granite headstones.

Walker acknowledged the Mangaia “A Team” of Tama Koroa, Atetu, George Marurai, Oki Karena and Tuara Tuara for their support. She said they had been “so helpful”, adding it was “wonderful” to be able to share skills with them.

The remaining WWI soldiers’ burial sites on the island belongs to:

1. Pte Ngaupapua Upokomaki 60692, Service number: 60692 (3rd Rarotongan Contingent), Date of Birth: 16/9/1895, Place of Birth: Mangaia, Death Reg: MANG19230020, Date of Death: 23/12/1923, Next of Kin: Ngau (father), Mangaia, Tuua (mother), Mangaia.

2. Pte A Ata, 5th Contingent (no service numbers). Note - this is not Pte Harry ATA 84561 whose grave has been documented in Mangaia. Also known as Tuake Ataiti, Next of Kin: Ata Ata (father)

The four Mangaia-born WWI soldiers whose “place of death” is unknown are: 1. Pte Ngamutu Tungane 19308, Service number: 19308 (2nd Rarotongan Contingent), AKA: Ngatama Tungane / Tungane Ngatama, Date of Birth: 1896, Place of Birth: Mangaia, Place of Death: Unknown, Next of Kin: Vaine Tararo (sister), Mangaia, Cook Islands - Note that the Service number is incorrect on the Cook Islands Roll of Honour Board - Should be 19308 not 19380.

2. Pte Nga Toi 60690 Service number: 60690 (3rd Rarotongan Contingent), Date of Birth: 20 years on enlistment, Place of Birth: Mangaia, Place of Death: Unknown, Next of Kin: Toi (father), Oneroa, Mangaia, Cook Islands.

3. Pte Kaiti Ka 60737 Service number: 60737 (3rd Rarotongan Contingent), Date of Birth: 12/03/1897, Place of Birth: Mangaia, Place of Death: Unknown, Next of Kin: Ka Vaine (mother).

4. Pte Makiroa Pareina 60738, Service number: 60738 (3rd Rarotongan Contingent), Date of Birth: 36 years on enlistment, Place of Birth: Mangaia, Place of Death: Unknown, Next of Kin: Tungane (wife), Rarotonga, Partina Vaine listed as wife on war service record.

Meanwhile the Soldiers Research Project indicates that between 370 and 410 Cook Islands WWI soldiers are buried throughout the country.

They have located the graves and headstones of 314 Cook Islands WWI returned servicemen – Rarotonga (172), Aitutaki (50), Mangaia (43), Atiu (29), and Mauke (20).

Walker said that their research is not complete until they have documented the seven WWI soldiers that research indicates are buried in the Northern Group – Pukapuka (3), Penrhyn (2), Manihiki (1), and Rakahanga (1).


The Soldiers Research Project team members Julie Taripo and Paula Paniani document headstones. SUPPLIED/23050103

This will be the team’s next “Soldier Search Mission” and will involve a six-day charter flight costing approximately $50,000.

If any wealthy benefactors, government departments or charitable organisations would like to discuss this further, Walker would certainly like to hear from you.

The Soldiers Research Team would sincerely like to thank the generous sponsors Air Rarotonga, Bank of the Cook Islands (BCI), Vodafone Cook Islands and Cook Islands Television News.

The documentary series “Finding our way back … to Mangaia”’ will be produced by Julie Taripo and will air on Cook Islands Television later this year.

The research work will be stored with Tauranga Vananga (Ministry of Cultural Development Cook Islands), and discussions are ongoing about the best way to facilitate this.